Helen David

Words by Theodora Sutcliffe

Originally from: Port Huron, Michigan
Profession: Bartender
At: Port Huron, Michigan

Helen David set up her little bar, the Brass Rail, in Port Huron, Michigan, on 15 June, 1937. Here, we pay tribute to one of the great community bartenders.

For 70 years, from the day Helen David opened the Brass Rail in Port Huron, Michigan, amid the turmoil of the Great Depression and the aftermath of Prohibition, until her death, she was a pillar of her local community.

She was born in the apartment above the bar - though at that time it had been a shop - and lived there her entire life: even aged 91, she still came downstairs every night to welcome her guests.

Her father, David Hibye, who had come to the US from Beirut, Lebanon, died when she was 21, leaving Helen and her mother to run the family's ice-cream parlour.

Times were hard, so the pair took the daring step of converting the ice-cream store into a saloon - even though Helen felt at the time that "proper ladies don't run saloons!"

A classic, neighbourhood bar, the Brass Rail became an essential part of life in this small town, described as "the Cheers of Port Huron".

Her cousin, renowned Las Vegas bartender Tony Abou-Ganim, who grew up in Port Huron and learnt to tend bar from Helen, recalls: "It was magic as a child. Going in with my father, seeing my uncles behind the great bar with the huge mirrors, shiny brass, the onyx pillars, the Shirley Temples. I think that's why I fell in love with this profession."

From Thanksgiving to New Year, Helen made Tom & Jerrys from scratch to her own recipe. She churned out Old-Fashioneds year-round, alongside Pabst Blue Ribbon and Miller High Life.

In an era where these things were unheard of, Helen provided her staff with sick leave, paid holiday and health insurance. She was well regarded locally, and is still known today as "the First Lady of Port Huron".

"She always believed in quality," says Tony. "She used to say that 'for a nickel more, you go first class'."

Though her home city declined over her lifetime, Helen worked hard to give back to her community at every level. She was an active member of the Licensed Beverage Association - president for her county, and a committee member at state level - and a regular at the Nightclub and Bar Show in Las Vegas.

Helen worked on local business organisations, as President of Downtown Port Huron and a member of the Blue Water Economic Forums. She contributed to local hospitals, schools, clinics and relief programmes, and to the Lebanese-American community in her state. And her church was important to her, too.

The Brass Rail has an unsurpassed collection of Port Huron sports memorabilia, and Helen sponsored a number of local teams. Her own preferred sports, however, were fishing and golf - she once won the Field and Stream Fishing Contest for Bone Fishing in Florida.

Says Tony Abou-Ganim, "Helen was my inspiration. She taught me more lessons than I could list."

Since Helen's death in July 2006, she is acquiring increasing recognition in the bartending community. The Lifetime Achievement Award at Tales of the Cocktail bears her name, and Tony has collected donations in her honour for the bartender's relief fund.

Helen David, we salute you.

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